I was very excited to see Pirates of the Caribbean II: The Dead Man’s Chest Friday night; I loved the first film and used to work at the Magic Kingdom theme park where I frequented the Florida’s abbreviated version of the ride. Beyond watching the trailers, I’d remained spoiler free and didn’t know what to expect from Pirates. While queueing at a small town American theater, I studied the poster for the film and saw three brown-skilled men with jeering and perplexed looks on their faces in the lower left-hand corner. Uh-oh, I thought. What am I getting into?
Here ye be warned, this post contains some mild spoilers for Pirates of the Caribbean II.
As much as I enjoyed the movie’s plot and action (I haven’t been so scared by a movie in ages), and Elizabeth’s agency in a male dominated world, the race portrayal in the movie left me very unsettled. I decided to mull it over a few days, and see what others were saying on the blogoshere. I found this post by LiveJournal user Sabonasi on the debunkingwhite LJ group. On the character of Tia Dalma, one of the few people of color whose role is more than marginal, Sabonasi writes:
Tia Dalma is definitely in “Magical Negro” territory. She’s overly willing to help the white characters, often for a smaller price than one might expect and even after Jack steals from her. She is exploited by the white characters, and the film offers no criticism for this. Rather, it’s intended to be funny. White people ripping off a black woman who is helping them? Totally hilarious! [/sarcasm]
Furthermore, there was the treatment of Dalma’s sexuality. Hey, I’m all for sexuality. If it was just Dalma lusting after Will and Jack, I’d call her an honorary fan and be done with it. My problem is that her sexuality was also treated as a joke. The film made it perfectly clear that there was no way that Jack nor Will would actually be romantically interested in her. A Black woman thinking she is sexually/romantically desirable? Hahahaha! [/more sarcasm]
Sabonasi goes on to discuss the Kalinago people, the “savage cannibals” who make Jack their god and intend to eat him:
I do not speak KalhÃphona. I do not know if what was being spoken in the film was KalhÃphona or not. But the fact that the Kalinago people were not speaking English? Was also meant to be humorous. A bit of an aside: Jack appears to have mastered the language almost instantaneously, which implicitely states the language isn’t that complex. Or Jack is just that much of a Mighty Whitey. Maybe both.[…]
The Kalinago people appear in the story and disappear in the story with little consequence. They serve no purpose but to provide a source of racist humor and menance the heroes. The idea that they want to free a god from his human form is never fully explored, and I’m surprised they got even that much motivation.
I realize now that the portrayal of the Kalinago in Pirates of the Caribbean is continuing the images of the “savage cannibals” used to subjugate indigenous peoples since the days of Columbus.
At first, I didn’t realize that the indigenous people in the film were based on a real group, Kalinago. I searched for “Kalinago” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” on Google, and found that Caribbean Indigenous Peoples have been calling for a boycott of the film for a few weeks now:
On behalf of the TaÃno People and Nation represented
by the United Confederation of TaÃno People (UCTP), we
are urging all our relations around the world to
stand in solidarity with a peaceful protest against
Walt Disney Pictures and their upcoming release of
“The Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” for
its erroneous depiction of Caribbean Indigenous
Peoples as savage cannibals.
>From the time Christopher Columbus arrived on our
shores, it is well known that these “cannibal” images
were used as propaganda to enslave and murder Natives
Peoples throughout the hemisphere, and beyond.
Therefore, We, the Taino People have united our voices
with our Kalinago, Carib, and Garinagu relatives to
bring attention to this injustice, racist portrayal of
The Wikipedia article on Carib peoples (as of 7/9/06) also identifies an imperialist motive for labeling peoples as cannibals:
Instances of cannibalism were noted as a feature of religious war rituals, and in fact, the English word cannibal comes from the Spanish canÃbal, itself taken from the Carib karibna (‘person’) as recorded by Columbus. Claims of cannibalism, however, must be seen in light of the fact that in 1503, Queen Isabella ruled that only cannibals could be legally taken as slaves, which gave Europeans an incentive to identify various Amerindian groups as cannibals.
But colonization was in the past, right? Why does that hurt people now? From the CAC Review on boycotting Pirates:
Let us keep in mind that such depictions were used to enslave and murder the ancestors of today’s Caribs, there was never anything innocent or “fun” about these portrayals. In addition, generations of Carib descended school children in the Caribbean have been taught that their ancestors were savage cannibals. Shame over ancestry was inculcated as a matter of routine. In my own field research experience, I have encountered individuals in their forties and fifties who told me very directly that the main reason they did not wish to self-identify as Caribs is that people in the wider world see Caribs as cannibals, as inhuman man eaters, and they found the stigma unbearable. Disney is playing its part in centuries of ethnocide.
As a former Disney employee, there are plenty of good reasons to boycott the company in addition to its racism, and I applaud those who can remove themselves entirely from financially supporting the corporation. I don’t know that I will entirely remove myself, Disney is ubiquitous and there are things I enjoy about their creations at the same time I am vocally critical. I did enjoy Pirates despite its racism, and that puts me as unease with myself. Another LiveJournal user, oyceter, articulates well why this causes discomfort in the post Race and Pirates:
Part of me doesn’t even want to keep talking about this because it’s so uncomfortable, because it causes such defensiveness in other people, because I am tired of being told that I am wrong for seeing these things. And that’s the very reason I am making myself post this, making myself confront the nidginess and the squirminess, the problems that I have in just acknowledging that something that I am enjoying is racist.
I almost stopped talking about it because I met resistance to discussing race in this movie with my fellow white friends and family. It’s easy for us to say “it’s just a movie” or “it’s just being historically accurate” when we’re the peoples represented as the heroes. But we’re not wrong for noticing, and we should talk about it. Maybe our less-than-agreeable peers with look more critically at race portrayal next time they see a film. And now that Iâ€™ve read up a little bit of Caribbean history, and heard some from the people of color â€œrepresentedâ€ in this movie, Iâ€™m a little bit more prepared to speak up.
Cross-posted on Ally Work.